The year is 1928. Charles M. Stanley, a pioneer of the American auto race industry, established a racing track in Northeastern Illinois to rival the legendary Speedway in Indianapolis. After a few years of decline, the track fell completely into disrepair. Now, almost a century later, we take a look at the roller coaster history of Bandimere Speedway and how you can still make the most of its unique offerings.
The Early Years (1928-1949)
On October 7, 1928, the first automobile race was held at Bandimere Speedway. The race, which was sponsored by Remington Arms, was a success and the press reacted favorably to the new track. The following week, a group of Chicago investors purchased the land under the condition that it be used for a motor racing facility. They agreed to pay Stanley $100,000 for the land with the proviso that he find the money to make the project a reality.
The first tracks at Speedway were standard – dirt and grass varieties. However, Stanley quickly made the necessary improvements to create a more attractive and functional racing venue. He laid down a water and sewer system, built a tower for broadcasting the races and expanded the main straightaway from 400 to 500 feet. He also constructed a small museum dedicated to the history of motorsport which now houses over 30 vintage race cars. Most importantly, he hired Louis Alfred Agena as the track’s first driver. Agena had a long and storied racing career which included 12 wins and 12 poles at the famed Speedway. (Agena would also go on to become the administrator of the NASCAR Drivers Council and the first director of the Sports Car Club of America).
Bandimere Speedway opened its doors to the public for the first time on April 30, 1929. Over the next decade, the track would average about 6,000 fans per week which, at the time, was a decent sized crowd for an American race track. In fact, during the Great Depression the track was so popular that it often had to ration autographs and pictures with fans.
In the early 1930s, Stanley constructed a bridge connecting the main drag of North Ave to the south side of the track. This became known as the “Pelican Viaduct” and was a unique addition to the growing track. It was also at this time that the track introduced the first lights along its course. (The lights would continue to be a prominent and much-loved feature at the track throughout the 20th century).
World War II And Post-War Reshaping (1950-1969)
The second half of the twentieth century would see a decline in the popularity of auto racing. In fact, it would be decades before the sport would see the kind of crowds that used to flock to the bridge and beyond during the Great Depression.
During World War II, auto racing was put on hold as many American manufacturers turned their attention to the war effort. After the war, the industry slowly made its way back with the help of tax breaks, promotions and new tracks. On August 10, 1948, the first post-war auto race was held at the newly-opened Elgin Auto Speedway in Elgin, Illinois. The event, called the “Night Before the Night Before,” was a hit and was followed by a string of similar races. The Elgin Speedway would go on to become the site of the first-ever “World 600” on October 23, 1951. This race, which was held every other summer, was one of the most prestigious races in the country and was originally conceived as a way to promote the post-war rebuilding effort.
The 1950s also saw the construction of numerous new speedways across the country. Many of these projects would become staples of the American racing landscape. In November 1954, the track which is now known as Atlanta Motor Speedway opened for business. In January 1955, the original Michigan Motor Speedway, which had previously been the site of the defunct Grand Prix motorcycle racing event, opened for business in the metro Detroit area. Two months later, Pacific Coast Race Track, which was situated in Santa Ana, California, opened it’s doors for the season.
The Decline (1969-1995)
Over the next three decades, Bandimere Speedway would see its edge slowly but surely wear off. The track’s popularity would fall to its lowest point in the early 1980s. This was primarily due to a combination of factors. First, it had become unfashionable to be seen at a race track. Second, the success of the Indy 500 meant that interest in shorter tracks had waned. And, last but not least, NASCAR had entered the picture and had made its presence felt. The early 1990s would see a small revival in interest in the sport with the growing popularity of CART, the first “Champ Car” series and a number of new tracks across the country. However, it would not be until 2007 that the crowds would return to the old ballpark. (In fact, at the time of this writing, the track is still waiting for its next race week with no date in sight).
Many reasons have been given for the slow decline of Bandimere Speedway. One thing is for sure, the track has seen better days. On November 1, 1995, the final race was held there. More than 20,000 fans came out to bid the place one last farewell. In the years since, the site has sat vacant, save for some local high schoolers who have used it as a practice track.
The Legend Lives On (1996-Present)
In the years since the last race at Bandimere Speedway, the track has maintained a small but devoted following. This group of nostalgic auto enthusiasts has kept the spirit of the place alive. In fact, the track is now so well-loved that it has been designated a “pioneer track” by the Confederation of Motor Sport. (A pioneer track is a track that was established before the turn of the century and is considered “iconic” because of its rich history).
The first organized motorsport event at the track was held on July 30, 1996. Twenty-one vintage cars took to the track that day with the first-ever “Bandimere Throwback Weekend”. The one-day event was a hit and was followed by a string of similar events which have become an annual occurrence. On August 28, 2000, the track held its first-ever “Car Show”. More than 100 classic cars and motorcycles showed up that day with the public invited to come out and take a look at the rare and beautiful vehicles which have made the track so famous.
In recent years, interest in vintage racing has grown significantly. This has helped fuel and encourage the revival of the track. The popularity of the “Muscle Car” era has led to a surge in vintage racing with the formation of clubs like the “Aurora Borealis” and others dedicated entirely to the genre. The growing popularity of the digital age has also played a role with fans looking for nostalgia and an escape from the stresses of daily life.
Even with these new fans, it has not been easy for the track to reverse its fortunes. The economic downturn of the last few years has undoubtedly taken a toll on its finances. In the coming months, it is expected that Bandimere Speedway will attempt to shed some of its smaller venues and pool their resources in a bid to become a major league fixture once again.